A Miraculous Atheist

A Miraculous Atheist


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[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Today’s story is… mystical. About incredible coincidences, or perhaps something less of this world. About the inexplicable. And it starts with María Isabel Acuña Arias, better known as La niña Marisa. She was Costa Rican. She died in 1954, at just 13 years old.

[Inti Pacheco]: She had a tumor right in the back of her head, and she was a little girl known for being very Catholic, very devout, and very religious.

[Daniel]: This is Inti Pacheco. He’s a journalist, and he’s also Costa Rican

Inti has been investigating La niña Marisa for a few months. Later on, you’ll learn why. But for now, let’s continue with her story. She lived in the province of Heredia. And before she got sick, she was known to be very kind-hearted.

[Inti]: There are stories that she prayed that she helped people. That when she was out walking and would see someone, a homeless person, she would give them the money she had been given to, I don’t know, eat or buy something. And she always helped people who… who didn’t have money.

[Daniel]: But there was a problem at home.

[Inti]: Her dad wasn’t Catholic. He was Evangelical. So she asked the Virgin Mary and God to convert her dad.

[Daniel]: And the thing is Evangelicals don’t venerate the saints, or the Virgin Mary, which are fundamental symbols in Catholicism. They don’t believe in one, universal church, led by the pope, either. Protestants don’t have a unified church, instead, they have several denominations, which are all equally valid. 

Think about the context for a moment: the ’50s, Heredia, at that time, was in effect a rural province of Costa Rica. A small, conservative, very Catholic country. So it makes sense that Marisa would feel anxious. Being an Evangelical went against Catholic belief. And God was a feared figure at the time. Abandoning Catholicism was, as she understood it, disobeying His word, condemning oneself to eternal torment. Marisa didn’t want that for her father, for her family.

Amid all this, Marisa got sick. A brain tumor. Cancer. But, according to what they say, a nun at her school tells her that her illness may have a purpose.

[Inti]: She tells her, “Why don’t you offer up your pain to God, so He’ll convert your dad?”

[Daniel]: I’d better make this clear at the start, without wanting to offend anyone. Inti lets out a little laugh here. Because, well, he isn’t a believer.

So all of this is very foreign to him.

[Inti]: To me that’s weird. I mean, I didn’t think it was like that. So she’s basically like: “OK, I’m going to suffer so my dad will be Catholic.” But in any case, that’s supposed to be very kind-hearted, very good. And that’s why she’s considered to be so good and a child of God.

[Daniel]: Marisa refused treatment for her tumor, and they say she even went blind. She dedicated her suffering to God, and in a way, it worked

[Inti]: Her dad became Catholic before she died. And so, I think, from there, from that point on, gee, everyone said that… that she was a girl who could perform miracles, in theory.

[Daniel]: Even though she talked about it with her dad; she asked him to convert. But, anyway, when he did, everyone took it as a miracle. And in Heredia, Marisa is a kind of Catholic celebrity. People go to her grave and leave letters to ask her petitions. Large and small miracles.

I already know what you’re thinking. What does all this stuff about miracles and La niña Marisa have to do with Inti, an atheist? Why did he end up getting interested in Marisa’s life? Well, the answer lies in a family story that he discovered not long ago.

Here’s Inti.

[Inti]: In the middle of 2019, my dad sent a message to the family WhatsApp group. He said, as a joke, “I’m a product of a miracle by Maritza, the girl from Heredia. The tribunal that approves saints called me. Tomorrow I’m going as proof. I hope they take me to Rome.”

The first thing I thought was, “Who’s Maritza? What miracle?”

And secondly, “But my dad’s an atheist.”

This is him. His name is Juan Diego.

[Juan Diego Pacheco]: I don’t bring up issues of faith with anyone. I don’t mention it, and I don’t deal with it in any way either.

[Inti]: And you could see that in our house. They never taught us anything about God; we weren’t even baptized. Anything that makes reference to Catholic rituals is a little strange for us. And as for Marisa and the miracle, we heard even less. I don’t remember hearing anything. Not even as an anecdote. The first time I heard about Marisa was in that WhatsApp message. It made me really curious, and I kept asking about it. It turns out, he was going to go to an Episcopal Conference to attest to a miracle. A miracle that happened to him.

And that’s because in 2018, the Costa Rican Catholic Church asked the Vatican to start the process of beatification and canonization for La niña Marisa, the steps leading up to making her a saint. She would be the first Costa Rican saint. The process involves an investigation into Marisa’s life, the virtuous acts of her life, and the miracles she’s performed after her death. For now, she’s a servant of God, which is the first step toward becoming a saint. This level is acquired when the Church presents a report on the life of the person and their virtues.

So, my dad’s miracle.

It was in 1959, five years after Marisa’s death. My dad was just two years old. He doesn’t remember anything, he only knows what they’ve told him. My grandmother has already died, and my family doesn’t talk to my grandfather anymore because of irreconcilable issues.  And I’ve only seen him one or two times in my life. But I know two people who do remember what happened, my aunt Rita…

[Rita Pacheco]: I’m a woman who’s very happy to be a woman.

[Inti]: She’s 70 years old. At that time, she was nine. She’s my dad’s older sister. The oldest of 11 kids. And this is my uncle Arturo. He’s 69 years old.

[Arturo Pacheco]: We’ve been through a lot.

[Inti]: He was eight at the time. They lived in Alajuela, a neighboring province to Heredia, where Marisa was from.

[Rita]: In Alajuela at that time, you could say there was a rural atmosphere. And the surrounding area was a fantastic place to explore. We didn’t have any issues with anyone wanting to harm us, or thieves, or violent people, or anything.

[Inti]: She and all the kids in the neighborhood went to school during the day and then went to play in the streets. Always by the church La Agonía.

[Rita]: The ways we entertained ourselves were very simple: with two boards and a chair we’d make a spaceship and we’d reach the stars. We would come with… with some cardboard boxes from the steps of La Agonía out lawn. It was very simple, very rural, very pleasant. A really nice life.

[Inti]: A nice life, but also a very simple one.

My uncle Arturo, the second oldest after Rita, is always ironic when he describes how they lived.

[Arturo]: I come from one of the most organized families in Alajuela because there were actually 11 kids and there were only two rooms, so if we weren’t organized, we wouldn’t fit (laughs).

[Inti]: They didn’t have any money. And like a lot of families at that time, they were very religious.

[Arturo]: My grandparents, uh, on my dad’s side, who we were really close with, would take care of us a lot, they would visit us a lot, and they were always giving us religion.

[Rita]: At mom’s house we would always pray the rosary at night, and we would go to church. My brothers were altar boys. Always, always, in the family, God was the provider, the healer, the helper, the caretaker.

[Inti]: By that time, as we already said, my dad was only two years old. But people in the neighborhood already knew about him.

[Rita]: People knew about him especially because Juan Diego had dirty-blond curly hair and blue eyes, light blue eyes.

[Inti]: He was the only one of his siblings to have blue eyes. And for a probably racist reason, everyone was fascinated by that. They called him…

[Rita]: Cherub, little angel, the beautiful boy.

[Inti]: One day he was playing in bed and he fell. He hit his head. A few days later, he got sick. It seemed serious. Vomiting, fever, headache. They sent someone to get a doctor to come to the house to examine him. My uncle Arturo remembers that day well. 

[Arturo]: When he said, “He needs to go to the emergency room,” that was when I realized that something wasn’t right.

[Inti]: And yes. They took him immediately to the hospital.

[Rita]: He was going to be in the… like in the general waiting room with the children, and they decided his situation was so dire he had to go at least to a half-pension, where peop… where someone would always be looking after him.

[Inti]: A half-pension was a large room in the hospital where there weren’t many sick people.

[Rita]: And the sick-person’s family had all the allowances to do everything: bring food, bring blankets, bring toys, stay there all day.

[Inti]: But to have that space, they had to pay. Rita and Arturo have no idea how my grandparents managed to get that money. Somehow, they made it work. They admitted my dad in the room and made a plan for the family to look after him.

[Rita]: They told me, the oldest, “Juan Diego’s in serious trouble; we need to help.” Helping meant a lot. Helping was: taking care of the younger siblings in the afternoon, helping our grandma, uh, helping our aunt who came to cook and look after the little kids, helping with the same little kids, so they wouldn’t be more of a hassle than they normally were. 

[Inti]: Rita started going to take care of my dad everything afternoon, after school. She would go for two or three hours.

[Rita]: Whether it was to give him his pacifier, or talk to him, tell him stories. Anything.

[Inti]: At night either my grandma or an aunt or a neighbor took care of him. My dad was never alone at the hospital. Arturo went to visit him a few times too.

[Arturo]: Seeing him in the crib had a big impact on me. And I could feel that something serious was going to happen because he was… he looked very, very bad.

[Inti]: And the nurses would say that he was very delicate and that maybe he wasn’t going to survive. And more or less a week after he was admitted…

[Rita]: They determine that he had a tumor.

[Inti]: Tumoral meningitis to be exact. It seemed serious.

[Rita]: So, because he’s little, a child, a lot of doctors came and looked after Juan Diego. A lot of doctors got involved.

[Inti]: The prognosis was that my dad was going to die if they didn’t do something. But my grandparents were very firm with the doctors: they were not to operate on that child.

[Rita]: I think it was a feeling that if they operated on him he would die and if they didn’t operate on him he would die. So let’s not make him have to go through so much pain from having the operation. I imagine they knew that science… well, yes, but no.

[Inti]: In other words, at that time, in 1959, science had huge limitations.

[Rita]: Because they had to open his skull, by… by drilling. They were using those words that for… for a layperson are very difficult.

[Inti]: A layperson, a child. But my great grandmother had a plan. Through some friends in Heredia, she heard about La niña Marisa and her “miracles” after her death. Small miracles that you heard about in the street: that she had fixed some family situation, that she had gotten a family out of some financial trouble. They also talked about her helping to cure illnesses of the nervous system, of the brain, of the bones, of the skin. Whooping cough, varicose veins, tumors, rheumatism.

Also at that time, they were talking about a 17-year-old who was in a car accident. He was hemorrhaging and had multiple broken bones, both these vanished suddenly thanks to Marisa, according to her followers.

And well, these followers were Catholics in Heredia, people who knew La niña Marisa and were spreading the word about her miracles.

So my great grandmother decided to pray to La niña Marisa, and not just her, but the whole neighborhood.

[Rita]: They prayed a lot. In the afternoon it was the little kids and at night it was the adults, but the neighbors would come. All of their neighbors were willing to say a Hail Mary for Juan Diego to get better.

[Inti]: And that’s because it was a time when all of the people in a neighborhood knew each other and shared things with each other. So, they were willing to pray for my dad. Every day, for weeks.

[Rita]: For three weeks we had little meetings and prayed and prayed and prayed. We all believed in miracles. We were all hoping for a miracle.

[Inti]: A miracle from God through Marisa. But my dad wasn’t getting any better. And to make matters worse, he caught the flu and it turned into pneumonia. During his fourth week at the hospital, the doctor told my grandparents that he wasn’t going to make it through the next night. That they should prepare for that.

[Rita]: I close my eyes and I can see my mom sewing a blue dress with red trim and I remember the coffin under my bed because they bought a little coffin.

[Inti]: That’s how far they got. I can’t ask my grandparents if they lost faith in the idea of Marisa performing a miracle, because, well, my grandma is dead and my grandpa left our lives some time ago. But I imagine that what the doctors said weighed on them because my dad looked like he was in very bad shape.

My grandparents told my uncles that my dad was probably going to die, to prepare them. Even though most of them didn’t understand what was going on. The oldest siblings were Rita and Arturo and, remember, they were only nine and eight years old.

[Arturo]: Even the concept of death wasn’t very… clear to me either. What pain was, and absence, and that sort of thing.

[Inti]: The next day, my aunt Rita went to school, like always. Then she went home and helped with lunch. From there, she went to the hospital.

[Rita]: And I went into the room and I made it to where Juan Diego was. And I saw Juan Diego’s face and the stained pillow.

[Init]: The pillow stained with blood and pus. Rita started shouting.

[Rita]: No more. No more. After that there’s no more sanity.

[Inti]: She ran home. My grandma was there.

[Rita]: I just ran home and said to my mom, “They operated on him, and there’s blood on the pillow.” 

[Inti]: Rita started to panic because my parents had clearly told them not to operate on my dad. My grandpa wasn’t at home at the time. He was on a work trip. So my grandma went to the hospital on her own, and it was night before she came back.

[Rita]: The next day was when they spoke and said that a hole had appeared in Juan Diego’s head and that was how the tumor was spilling out. Those were the words she used.

The doctors said, “It’s a miracle.” No one had laid a hand on Juan Diego.

[Inti]: No one had any clear explanation of how that hole on the back of his head had formed.

[Rita]: There was a little round hole, very round. As if they had put a… a little die over it and tapped it with a hammer.

[Inti]: From the hole, according to Aunt Rita, drops of blood and pus came out every day for several months, they don’t know how many. My dad, of course, doesn’t remember either. 

To her La niña Marisa’s miracle is clear.

[Rita]: That is the miracle. That the orifice appeared on Juan Diego so the infection could come out.

[Inti]: Without a doctor or anyone else on the planet laying a finger on him.

My dad heard about this miracle throughout his childhood.

[Juan Diego]: I had my grandma’s version in particular, which she told me all the time. How it happened and how she, my mom, and Marisa made a sort of united front to rescue me from the clutches of death because I was already assumed dead. And how everyone had accepted that it was normal for me to die, except them, right? They said, “No, there’s no reason he should die. He’s not going to die, and he didn’t died.”

[Inti]: But for him, things are less mystical, less grandiose.

[Juan Diego]: But it’s not that the tumor came out. Blood and puss and who knows what stained the pillow. So they said it was the tumor.

But then they said, “He didn’t die, right? But it’s still there. No one knows if it came out of him or it didn’t,” right?

[Inti]: If the tumor had come out or if it hadn’t. And that’s because they didn’t do any more tests to see if it was still there or not. And the doctors who saw him are dead now. My uncle Arturo worked at the telephone exchange in the hospital in Alajuela, and he says that he looked for my dad’s file, but couldn’t find it. I also asked the hospital if they had any record to see if there’s some explanation, but no, nothing.

Let’s just say there’s no way to prove that it was a miracle or that it wasn’t. All we have is my family’s word. My family’s faith. I, because of how I was raised, I needed more, something more rational. So I spoke with a neurologist to see if he had any theory as to what may have happened.

[Alexander Parajeles]: My name is Alexander Parajeles Vindas. I’m a doctor, born here in Costa Rica. A neurologist.

[Inti]: Doctor Parajeles has been practicing in his specialty for 25 years. I asked him about my dad’s diagnosis: tumoral meningitis. We spoke the whole time taking into account the fact that there’s no medical file and everything the doctor says is an approximation, an opinion given with little information. It’s not a truth.

He told me that they don’t use the term tumoral meningitis anymore.

[Alexander]: We call it cancer-cell meningitis or carcinomatous meningitis.

[Inti]: Carcinomatous meningitis is when cancer cells inflame the meninges, which are the membranes that cover the central nervous system.

But carcinomatous meningitis doesn’t drain out. Because of the fall my dad suffered before everything with the tumor started and because of the liquid coming out, it sounds more like a hematoma or an abscess to Parajeles.

A hematoma is a blood clot that forms as a result of some trauma, in this case, a fall. A brain abscess is when an accumulation of bacteria becomes inflamed and forms a lump. Hematomas and abscess can drain out. That explains the blood and pus in my dad’s case.

So, for Dr. Parajeles, we’re looking at a case of misdiagnosis. And that’s because at that time, it was hard to examine the brain.

[Alexander]: Current diagnostic methods, which are the CT scan and the MRI, we know that in the ‘70s, those didn’t exist, for one. That means that it’s very possible that the diagnosticians would mistake it for a malignant tumor.

[Inti]: It was probably a hematoma. Not cancer. But, well, at the hospital in Alajuela, everyone was convinced that it was a malignant tumor that was going to kill my dad. Besides, the part of the miracle that isn’t explained is the hole that was made in my dad’s head supposedly without anyone intervening. That’s the part the doctor couldn’t explain to me.

Anyway, my dad was discharged about two weeks later and that was it, the story of the tumor was over. And everyone just assumed that he was going to be fine after those drops of blood came out. That was the miracle.

[Juan Diego]: It was a, we’ll say, Alajuela miracle. The earth didn’t shake. The lights didn’t go out. There were no… no lightning bolts. Fire didn’t rain from the heavens. Nothing happened. I just didn’t die, right?

[Inti]: In other words, it wasn’t a miracle of biblical proportions, one of those spectacular miracles like parting the sea or walking on water or turning water into wine. My dad simply didn’t die when the doctors said he was going to.

[Daniel]: After the break, Juan Diego’s life as a miracle child.

We’ll be right back.

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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we were telling the story of the supposed miracle that happened to Juan Diego, Init’s dad. A malignant tumor in his head, that one night drained out on its own. Though Inti spoke with a neurologist, and he said very certainly that malignant tumors don’t drain out, that it had to be something else, a hematoma, an abscess. Anyway, the thing no one could explain is the little the hole that was made in Juan Diego’s head, because the doctors who treated him at the time swear they hadn’t touched him.

Now life as a child whose life had been saved thanks to a miracle was what followed. But it wouldn’t be such an easy life.

Inti continues the story.

[Inti]: The miracle may have saved my dad from death, but not from illness.

[Juan Diego]: After I got through everything with the tumor, there was the whole aftermath of polio, meningitis, and a thing with bronchopneumonia

[Inti]: What had the biggest impact on my dad was the polio.

[Juan Diego]: I have monoparesis, which is a loss of strength in this arm. Well, I have one leg that’s shorter and I had a hip replacement.

[Inti]: On top of that, he lost hearing in one ear. And he’s going to progressively lose strength in the muscles that hold him up and allow him to function.

And because of the special care he needed, they decided the best thing for him was for him to stay with my great grandparents, where there was more space and they could give him more personalized attention. Besides, because he had blue eyes, he was my great grandma’s favorite. There was no arguing that. He lived there from the time he was two until he was 10 when my great grandmother died.

At the hospital, the treatments were brutal. Listen closely because what he’s describing may be a little hard to visualize.

[Juan Diego]: They made some stuff with cloth which they put on my neck. They lifted me up, they held me up like with a rope, as if I were being hanged. And in that position they… they put a cast on me, the whole thing, and they made a mold. And then, after that, I had to walk around with that mold on all the time and sleep in that mold.

[Inti]: In other words, with the help of a piece of cloth, they held up his head and kept it upright, then they wrapped him in a cast in order to help straighten out his spinal column. Imagine yourself getting wrapped up like a mummy.

Rita remembers another one of the treatments.

[Rita]: It was a like a sleeveless shirt with a rod sticking out of it and there was a kind of hat attached to the rod which they fastened to Juan Diego… a hat that fastened to Juan Diego under the chin with some special buckles so he could walk around with his spine straight and his head held up.

[Inti]: This already sounds a little less like a treatment and more like a torture device from the Inquisition, honestly. My dad tells it better than anyone.

[Juan Diego]: They strapped me in. They had me sleep in a plaster bed. It was a… a whole debacle.

[Inti]: A debacle. A disaster. A mess.

But it wasn’t all bad. There was also fun. And attention, because my dad was a miracle boy in my great grandmother’s social circle. People came to her house to see the boy who’d been cured. He turned into a kind of celebrity.

[Juan Diego]: All that ended up working in my favor. Really that whole thing, that whole myth, you know? Even financially speaking it was very good because at six years old, I would go with the mailman to sing… sing hymns for… for December, from the first to the 24th, you know?

[Inti]: Imagine a miracle child singing hymns next to the mail carrier. But, with the added detail that because of his polio, they put braces on him.

[Juan Diego]: Of course I imagine… I think that my miracle was not realizing what was happening to me, because I can’t imagine what I looked like with those devices on me from head to toe, there with a corset.

[Inti]: The mail carrier paid him a few cents. But it wasn’t just hymns for December…

[Juan Diego]: In January we had The Feast of the Christ of Equipulas, then we had Holy Week. I had a full calendar, you know? So… And I didn’t know it, but I was already an attraction at that point.

[Inti]: An attraction. My Uncle Arturo, on the other hand, was in charge of selling a little book that was written by a priest who knew about Marisa’s case. It’s a kind of biography. My dad’s family wanted everyone to know about La niña Marisa and her gift.

[Arturo]: I would say, “Look, I had a brother who was going to die, and this saint saved him.” And so, I knew things about the saint. That she was from Heredia and she had gotten sick too and she wanted her dad to convert. And I would talk, but I would talk mostly about Juan Diego. Then people would buy postcards, and they would buy the booklet.

[Inti]: They were postcards of Marisa, and they sold those too. All of my uncles loaded their backpacks with them to sell them at school and they used the money they got to buy more postcards. It wasn’t a business: their mission was to spread the word about Marisa.

My dad had a special postcard that, according to my great-grandma, could cure the migraines that he had for years after he got sick until he was a teenager. When he had a headache, he would go looking for it himself and put it on his forehead.

And he would be cured. Or at least that’s what he says.

My grandparents even did a pilgrimage from Alajuela to Marisa’s grave in Heredia. About a three-hour walk.

[Rita]: Mom and dad carry Juan Diego on foot from Alajuela to the cemetery. And they hire a bus to take all the kids who had prayed, and all the grandmothers, uncles, cousins. It was like 25, 30 people who came on the bus, and they brought us to the cemetery at Heredia.

[Inti]: Rita remembers a photo of my dad covered in braces next to her grave. So, yes, to say Marisa is an important part of the whole family’s life is an understatement. They became devotees of hers. As if she were a saint. And that’s because it was a difficult time. My dad’s health was very fragile.

[Juan Diego]: I was always taught that I could die at any moment, that that was normal.

[Inti]: And… and do you remember what that meant?

[Juan Diego]: No, just that I was going to die. That’s it.

[Inti]: But as a child, that they tell you, “You’re going to die.”

[Juan Diego]: No, no, no, it didn’t sound, I mean… I didn’t associate it with anything bad, or anything. It was like they were going to pull the plug or anything like that, right?

[Inti]: Like my uncle Arturo already said, death is a difficult concept to understand when you’re little. But imagine what it meant for the family: living with that uncertainty that a child could die at any moment. You have to have something to hold onto. In this case, it was God, and La niña Marisa, who had already saved him once.

For my grandparents and great grandparents, the most logical path for my dad was to become a priest. As a way of thanking Marisa. My dad remembers my great grandpa removed his carpentry workshop and built him a church to play in.

[Juan Diego]: With an altar and everything, you know? With some big angels they’d gotten ahold of. They put up a piece of light blue paper, and we played Mass.

[Inti]: My dad, obviously, was the priest. Then, when he was older, he was an altar server at the church of La Agonía. And everything was going according to plan: religion was going to be his life. But a specter started to roam Alajuela: communism.

Like we said, my great-grandma died when my dad was 10. So he went back to my parents’ house. The ‘70s came, and my dad, whose teen years were already in full swing, started getting more and more interested in reading. Specifically leftist literature. And not counting the theology of liberation, in communist movements, God doesn’t exist. It’s a lie invented to suppress the masses so they don’t get involved in the class struggle.

And that was when my father broke ties with the idea of God. And it wasn’t just an ideology. My dad also found in the country’s leftist community a place where he belonged. He found a group that was very different from his family, from whom he was becoming more and more distant.

[Juan Diego]: At home, I ate, I participated, but I didn’t… I didn’t interact socially. I wasn’t part of it. No… not at all, no. I lived on the outside.

[Inti]: And I can imagine the reason behind that distancing. My dad absorbed all those leftist ideas and he was shocked at his family’s devotion to God. And there was another reason my dad was never at his house: the constant acts of aggression from my grandfather, a chauvinistic and violent man.

[Juan Diego]: I managed to save a wardrobe with a lock where I kept my books, mostly. And so, when my dad would start getting aggressive and all that, he would break the padlock from the wardrobe and take out the books, and there was the condemnation of “communist”, of the stuff I was reading and I don’t know what else. He would throw out the books.

[Inti]: All this despite the fact that my dad didn’t talk about communism at all in my grandparents’ house.

[Juan Diego]: I didn’t get into arguments with them or try to evangelize them or anything like that.

[Inti]: Unlike my grandparents. But when he criticized something about the church or the Catholic faith, the argument about Marisa always came up.

[Juan Diego]: “But, what about you Juan Diego, you have to be grateful to Marisa.2

[Inti]: But for my dad, Marisa became a fiction, like a myth. And so did the miracle and faith. The problem is that no one can say anything with any certainty. There are no facts. Everything is too blurry, and it seems like the story that everyone is telling now is the one that’s most convenient: it wasn’t clear how my dad survived so obviously it had to be a miracle. My dad has no idea how he’s still alive, so it was all thanks to his mom and his grandma’s unerring faith.

But one thing is certain: since he was a teenager, La niña Marisa disappeared from my father’s life.

We all remember… knowing that you had a tumor, and polio, and all that, but we had never heard about Marisa.

[Juan Diego]: That’s true. Never, never, never.

[Inti]: Why?

[Juan Diego]: Eh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know… Eh, I don’t have that I have as a resource in my story. I don’t have it as a narrative resource.

[Inti]: Because of course, how can you call yourself an atheist with a miracle on your back?

We all do it: hide parts of our lives, stages that go against the image we want to project

So in my family, there are two parallel narratives at play. One, my dad’s, is the inexplicable disappearance of his tumor. The other, which is mainly upheld by my aunt Rita, is that of La niña Marisa’s miracle.

Rita knows that my dad doesn’t believe it was a miracle. But that doesn’t affect her.

Aunt Rita, for me, one of the things that is most important in all this is how… uh, in my home, we were never very religious, right? My dad didn’t… never took us to church or anything. So I wanted to know, what do you think about my dad… about what he thinks about this, let’s say, about this miracle?

[Rita]: That doesn’t mean much to me, and it doesn’t mean anything to God either because God has a way that is not our way. “My thoughts aren’t your thoughts, nor is my path your path,” That’s what God says. So, based on that, I shrug at what they may say and what they may do.

[Inti]: For my uncle Arturo, it honestly is all the same to him. And that’s because my dad’s atheism has never caused issues or started arguments at home. He just learned to avoid everything having to do with religion.

[Juan Diego]: I have a very emotionally centered relationship with my family. I don’t touch politics or religion.

[Inti]: But then, last year came. And my dad was suddenly called to an episcopal conference. 

It all started one day when my aunt Rita went to buy a newspaper called El Eco Católico.

[Rita]: I went to go buy El Eco and I read it and realized that the metropolitan curia was doing investigations into people who knew about miracles performed by Marisa.

[Inti]: And of course, my aunt Rita saw my dad’s miracle as a perfect example of Marisa’s powers. The ad had a contact email and phone number. Rita called and left her information several times, until one day they called her back and made an appointment with her at the Episcopal Conference. They asked for the names and phone numbers of people who may be able to testify. The first person Rita thought of was Arturo. And the second was, well, why not the subject of the miracle who didn’t think it was a miracle? My dad.

The officials at the Conference tried to contact my dad, but they weren’t able to because he was in Panama on a work trip.

[Juan Diego]: So Rita told me, “They need to talk to you at the…” she didn’t say “at the Conference,” she said, “The Ecclesiastic Tribunal,” right? Tribunal? All the legal stuff freaked me out. What could I have done? You know? So, later I asked her, “What’s this all about? Do you know what this is.” She says to me, “Yes, it has to do with Marisa, with Marisa’s miracle

[Inti]: He said that OK, that they could call him

[Juan Diego]: And I went as a commitment to my sister because she was really… she felt very committed she was the one who they asked to bring me, you know? So with that, I… the emotional aspect of my relationship with my siblings is very clear to me. I help them with everything I can, and… and I don’t question them about God or any of that. I go to everything.

[Inti]: But he didn’t even understand what he had to do. Even though he wanted to go, almost out of sheer curiosity, just for fun.

[Juan Diego]: When they called me from the Ecclesiastical Tribunal, I joked. I said, “Well, is the trip to Rome included?” But the truth is I had no idea what that could mean.

[Inti]: Here I have to clarify that what you’re about to hear is a reenactment of the hearing. On August 28th, 2019, in San José

So my dad arrived at the Episcopal Conference with my aunt Rita, my uncle Arturo, and my brother Nico.

A priest and a woman who was going to help take his statement welcomed them. It started out somewhat informally. My aunt Rita, along with Arturo and my dad told the story of the miracle that you just heard about.  They picked Rita to give the statement, and immediately things took a more formal tone.

[Priest]: Ms. Rita, I’m going to kindly ask that you put your right hand on the Blessed Virgin and say your name because this statement will be given under oath. Everything after this must be sent to Rome.

[Inti]: Everything took on a very solemn air.

[Rita]: I, Rita Pacheco Murillo, swear by God and the Holy Gospel, to tell the truth, and only the truth. Concerning these articles and any other that may be asked about with reference to the topic…

[Inti]: Then the questions started.

[Priest]: First question: did you know the young woman, María Isabel Acuña Arias?

[Rita]: I did not know her.

[Priest]: What do you know of her family story?

[Rita]: What’s in the booklet.

[Inti]: She’s referring to the booklet that my uncle Arturo used to sell.

[Priest]: Do you know how and when María Isabel became aware of the illness that began to afflict her?

[Rita]: What it says in the booklet.

[Inti]: According to my dad, the priest tore Rita and Arturo apart.

[Juan Diego]: Because it was 22 questions, all of them were related to Marisa’s life, and none of us had seen Marisa alive.

[Inti]: And of course, the answer, again and again, was, “I don’t know. What it says in the booklet.”

[Juan Diego]: The priest was listening to us… He wasn’t taking it seriously, right?

[Priest]: Do you know how María Isabel experienced the convalescence of said illness?

[Rita]: No, just what it says in the book.

[Priest]: A booklet.

[Rita]: Personally, I’m not sure they were paying attention, the priest or the secretary, because they asked the questions and answered them themselves.

[Juan Diego]: Only the last one was, “And what did Marisa do for you…” and they told the story of the miracle. But then I looked at the priest, following that… that Roman protocol and… and being insensitive with the people. With Rita, for example, and Arturo.

[Inti]: My dad’s referring to the priest’s general tone during the statement: solemn, cold, full of skepticism toward the miracle that Rita and Arturo were presenting. I guess it made some sense. In the end, it is an investigation, and for the Church, there’s a difference between a popular saint and a Catholic saint. There has to be evidence.

[Juan Diego]: He wanted real Hollywood-style evidence of the miracle. “What happened?” “How did people know it was a miracle?” The people who are there, they realize it’s a miracle. People saw that there was blood, that I didn’t die and they’re happy. Someone said, “This was a miracle.” But no one said, “We’re going to document this, and whatever else.”

[Inti]: At the end, they read the official statement that was written. It was all “I don’t know,” “What it says in the booklet” and a very brief summary of the miracle.

[Rita]: Then I said, “I still believe,” I told them, “I still believe in the miraculous intervention of Marisa in the matter of Juan Diego. What you have written there is what’s written down, but it’s not… not what I carry in my heart, in certainty, in faith, in sureness, that Marisa intervened so that Juan Diego could carry on miraculously.”

[Inti]: And that’s because this business with the beatification means a lot to my aunt.

[Rita]: I would like for the Holy Spirit to act and see that Marisa really does act on people’s behalf, being close to God.  For me. So, if she isn’t busy, let’s put her to work, so she can continue acting on behalf of the sick.

[Inti]: But in order for people to seek her help, people need to know about her. That’s where the beatification comes into play.

[Rita]: So I would like that: for Rome to wise up and realize that this little girl does the work, that this little girl works and we need this little girl.

[Inti]: That statement, in theory, already went to Rome. And who knows what will happen in Marisa’s canonization process. I don’t know how many people went to present their miracles to the Episcopal Conference. But if Marisa becomes Costa Rica’s first saint, it’s possible that my atheist dad contributed to that. I wonder how the pope would feel about that information. I asked him on Twitter, but he didn’t answer. And especially, how will God feel?

The situation with the statement didn’t go very well, but this reintroduction of Marisa into my father’s life after almost 50 years got my father thinking, not so much about what Marisa means to him, but about what he means for the memory of Marisa and for people who believe in her sainthood.

[Juan Diego]: Now I think that if I can do something, I’m going to try to do something. If I can give faith to some people or hope or something, you know? Maybe, you know?

[Inti]: In other words, if he has to become a kind of symbol of Marisa’s powers, he’s ready to do it.

Does he think that what happened to him was a miracle? If it means that it could give hope to people who need it, then yes, it is a miracle. And what do I think? Well, that’s another story.

[Daniel]: Inti Pacheco is a journalist, and lives in New York. This story was produced by Luis Fernando Vargas. Luis Fernando lives in San José, Costa Rica.

Thank you very much to Jorge Vargas and Ana Vega for lending us their voices for this episode.

This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Jorge Caraballo, Aneris Casassus, Victoria Estrada, Xochitl Fabián, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Desirée Yépez.

Fernanda Guzmán is our editorial intern.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.


Inti Pacheco

Luis Fernando Vargas

Camila Segura and Daniel Alarcón

Andrés Azpiri

Andrés Azpiri

Andrea López-Cruzado

Daniel Liévano

Costa Rica